We Need More “Useless” Knowledge

On April 30, 1939, under the gathering storm clouds of war, the New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Its theme was The World of Tomorrow. ... Some of the displayed innovations were truly visionary. ... Albert Einstein, honorary chair of the fair’s science advisory committee, ... spoke to a huge crowd on the topic of cosmic rays, highly energetic subatomic particles bombarding the Earth from outer space. But two scientific discoveries that would soon dominate the world were absent at the fair: nuclear energy and electronic computers. ...

The very beginnings of both technologies, however, could be found at an institution that had been Einstein’s academic home since 1933: the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. The institute was the brainchild of its first director, Abraham Flexner. Intended to be a "paradise for scholars" with no students or administrative duties, it allowed its academic stars to fully concentrate on deep thoughts, as far removed as possible from everyday matters and practical applications. It was the embodiment of Flexner’s vision of the "unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge," which would only show its use over many decades, if at all.

Read more as Robbert Dijkgraaf, Institute Director, discusses the ever-present need for curosity-driven basic research and the unforeseen usefulness that unfettered scholarship provides, the argument initially laid by the Institute's Founding Director, Abraham Flexner, in his 1939 essay "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge."